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Fri November 20, 2009
Plan to close SoS branch office draws criticism
By Kevin Lavery, WKAR News
East Lansing, MI – A plan to consolidate one of the more public functions of state government has some civic officials concerned. Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is proposing to close branch offices in downtown Lansing and East Lansing. Land says consolidating those services into a single "super center" would allow for better customer service and save money.
If you live in East Lansing or drive downtown, you've seen the Secretary of State branch office on Albert Avenue. It's on the ground floor of a massive, tubular structure popularly known as the "habitrail."
It's always a busy place. Fifteen minutes after it opened this morning, customer number 48 had just grabbed their number. The Secretary of State says her office can speed up the process. Spokeswoman Kelly Chesney says that's one reason why the state wants to close the East Lansing and downtown Lansing branches in favor of a so-called "super center" in Lansing's Frandor shopping area:
"Across the state, we're looking at deploying services for the best price possible, making sure that we live within our means," Chesney says. "And this is one way that we can do that."
Chesney says the super center would provide amenities not offered in East Lansing, like self-service stations for license tag renewals, an instant title service and Saturday hours.
There's also a financial incentive for the state. Chesney says the closure would save $2,200 a year.
But local leaders like Democratic state senator Gretchen Whitmer say the cost benefit analysis doesn't add up.
"And for a meager savings of $2,200 per year, it doesn't make sense to close the Secretary of State's office," Whitmer says. "Because of the undue hardship, and because there's no real tangible savings here this is just a terrible policy decision."
East Lansing city councilman Nathan Triplett says the Secretary of State never consulted the city on their proposal. He says the office is a key asset for the city that drives people downtown. Triplett understands the desire to tighten budget belts, but he says the East Lansing branch is too productive to close.
"This office generates over 100,000 transactions each year, over $13 million in collections for the state," says Triplett. "And in addition, when you look at the figures provided by the secretary herself, I think you'll agree with me that closing this office may be penny wise but it's pound foolish and I'm not even sure that it's penny wise."
Opponents also say closing the East Lansing branch would disenfranchise thousands of Michigan State University students who don't have their own cars and rely on the office's proximity to campus. But Kelly Chesney says the statistics show fewer people are actually walking through the door to conduct business.
"And you have to recognize that this East Lansing office is down 30 percent in transactions since 2002," Chesney notes. "That recognizes that students are tech-savvy, they're using our online services, and they take advantage of those."
Don Sanner did come to the office in person. He was there to renew his drivers' license and plates. Sanner lives in Bath Township, and he says driving a bit further to a new super center isn't a big problem.
"From what I know about it, they're moving it to Frandor, which is, in my opinion, better parking, cheaper parking and probably easier to get in and out of," Sanner says.
The office is a much closer trip for East Lansing resident Brad Granzow. But he says he's also willing to make a sacrifice.
"I'd rather us keep a balanced budget and if we have to close down offices and if I have to drive further away, then that's what has to be done," says Granzow.
But the notion of closing the office doesn't just hinge on cost and convenience. Democrat Mark Meadows represents East Lansing in the Michigan House. He says state law requires the branch office to stay right where it is.
"And the state statute requires that any city over 10,000 have an office within it, unless it's within five miles of a county office, which is also required under the statute," says Meadows. "It's not within five miles of a county office I don't even know why she thinks that lawfully she can even close this office."
The law requires a minimum of one branch office per county. The Secretary of State insists opening a super center in place of two existing offices would not violate the law.
If all goes as planned, the state says the branch office consolidation could begin next year. But before that happens, the East Lansing city council could soon see a resolution formally opposing the plan. While it lacks the force of law, local officials hope such a statement will spark enough public outcry to turn the abbreviation "SoS" from Secretary of State to "Save Our Site."